By Steve Frothingham

Armstrong news conference: Armstrong said fighting cancer is the top priority.

Armstrong news conference: Armstrong said fighting cancer is the top priority.

Photo: Steve Frothingham

Cycling legend Lance Armstrong confirmed Wednesday that he would join Kazakhstan’s Astana team for his competitive comeback.

“I will race in 2009 with Astana,” he told a press conference in New York. Armstrong said he would start with the Tour Down Under in Australia; would also compete in the 2009 Tour de France, which he has won seven times; and was interested in the Giro d’Italia.

The cycling great and cancer survivor was joined at the news conference by anti-doping scientist Don Catlin, who will run an independent monitoring program that Armstrong said will prove that he is not doping during his comeback attempt.

Also joining Armstrong was 18-year-old Taylor Phinney, who will join an under-23 development team that he is supporting.

Armstrong said he was returning to racing to promote his cancer-prevention foundation. And he downplayed the idea he might win yet again.

“Honestly, I don’t know. I’ve been off the bike three years,” Armstrong said. “I’ll be nearly 38 years old. … So I honestly don’t know. I will try to be as prepared as possible. I don’t know that that equals victory. … I have a fair bit of confidence, but I don’t have that kind of confidence, yet.”

Armstrong also said that 2007 Tour champ Alberto Contador should consider staying with Astana, despite recent comments that the Spanish rider might leave rather than compete with Armstrong for team leadership.

“I think there is room for all of us on that team: myself, Alberto, Levi (Leipheimer) and (team director Johan Bruyneel), who is quite the personality himself,” he said. “Alberto is the best rider on the planet right now. We have to understand that, we have to respect that. I’m not sure I can ride that fast anymore. I certainly hope it works out.”

“If he has other offers and he wants to go somewhere else or go to a Spanish team, perhaps, that’s his decision, but I would encourage him to give this situation an opportunity and I would look forward to racing with him.”

Asked how he would respond if Astana is not invited to the Tour, Armstrong replied: “It’s their event. They get to pick who’s invited and who’s not invited. If I’m not invited, there’s not much I can do.”

He also strongly denied reports that he was angling to purchase Amaury Sport Organization (ASO), owner of the Tour and other prestigious events, quipping, “First of all, I don’t have that kind of money.”

Security was tight at the Sheraton New York Wednesday morning prior to Armstrong’s remarks. Before meeting the press, he addressed the 10 a.m. opening session of the Clinton Global Initiative Annual Meeting.

Former President Bill Clinton introduced Armstrong and spoke of the Tour champion’s plan to transform his anti-cancer Livestrong campaign from a national to a global campaign.

“This is an exceptional commitment by an exceptional person,” Clinton said.

Armstrong was applauded when he announced that he was coming out of retirement.

“I cannot guarantee you an eighth Tour victory,” Armstrong said. “But I can guarantee you that the Livestrong message will touch all aspects of our society, all continents of our society and certainly touch all the different aspects of cancer.”

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who joined the stage with Armstrong and Clinton to open the conference, called Armstrong “our hero for the day,” and said he expected another Tour victory.

“What’s so hard? It’s like riding a bicycle,” he joked.

After Armstrong left the stage, Clinton led a discussion with Jordan’s Queen Rania Al-Abdullah, rock star Bono, former Vice President Al Gore, Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, and E. Neville Isdell, the chairman of the Coca-Cola Company. Former President George H.W. Bush also spoke at the conference on Wednesday.

• Anti-doping plan Catlin will head up an independent monitoring system for Armstrong. Catlin is the former head of the UCLA Olympic Analytical Laboratory, and the chief science officer of Anti-Doping Sciences Institute, a testing and consulting company. Catlin testified at Floyd Landis’ WADA hearing in 2007.

“I know as much as anybody does how to beat the system; he’s not going to beat me,” Catlin told The New York Times.

On Wednesday, Armstrong said the Astana team will pay for Catlin’s program.

‘I knew there would be questions about my performances … I didn’t want to leave any doubt. I will do anything Don asks me to do,” he said.

“I know there is not enough money anywhere to buy off Don Catlin.”

He said that all his lab testing results will be published on the web. “You guys can all analyze it and look for small differences yourselves.”

Armstrong also said he would not be talking about doping for the rest of the season.

“Beyond today, I am not going to tell you how clean I am, and I’m not gonna insinuate how dirty the others are. I’m going to ride my bike and I’m going to spread this message around the world and Don Catlin can tell you if I am clean or not,” he said.

• Phinney and Merckx Armstrong is forming a U23 road racing team that will be managed by retired pro Axel Merckx and will include Phinney, who currently races for Garmin-Chipotle’s development team Felt-VMG.

“Taylor is the future of American cycling,” Armstrong said. “I feel like building this team around Taylor, having Axel Merckx direct the team, this is what the sport needs.”

The New York Times reported that team will be sponsored by Trek Bicycles.

• Race schedule Armstrong confirmed he would ride the Tour Down Under, the Tour de France and the Leadville Trail 100, quipping that the press shouldn’t tell the Leadville organizers because they don’t know yet. He said he expected to participate in other events, perhaps some in South America or Asia, but could not confirm them yet.

In answer to a question from an Italian journalist, Armstrong said he hadn’t ruled out riding the Giro d’Italia, which he has never started. He noted that 2009 will be the 100th Giro and that Italy is a country where the Livestrong campaign could have a great effect.

“I also like Italian food,” he said.

• Beyond 2009 Armstrong did not rule out competing beyond 2009. “I’m not going to box myself in, here. It’s open-ended.”

• Cyclocross Meanwhile, at the Interbike trade show in Las Vegas — where Armstrong will hold another news conference Thursday — speculation continued about the effect of his return on the sport and the industry. Reports that Armstrong will race in some U.S. cyclocross events this fall were a major topic of conversation ahead of Wednesday night’s CrossVegas race.